thinkflickrthink: a case study on strategic tagging
Introduction The growth both in quantity and diversity of online communities across the World Wide Web, along with a number of new technologies that enhance both social interaction and content management, have bred an array of increasingly participatory practices. Users are engaged in bustling environments in which they can express themselves and interact with other users, creating and fostering all sorts of relationships, while uploading and sharing multimedia contents. Such environments turn into vital territories for many of their users, who can become extremely sensitive and protective of what they believe to be their rights. Thus even a small, unfavorable change in the structure of the site or in its usage policies can trigger discontent and active opposition. Actions performed by the site administrators, such as the deletion of content or the suspension of user accounts, can be perceived as abusive by the community and trigger outrage. In such situations, many uncoordinated forms of spontaneous protest and defense can emerge from the network of users. The creativity and effectiveness of these initiatives can vary greatly, with protests ranging from discussions on forums and blogs, to site-blocking boycotts. This research analyzes one particular protest strategy adopted by a number of users of Flickr, a popular image-sharing site: the use of anti-censorship tags to make the protest visible within the site itself. Many Web 2.0 sites such as Flickr, del.icio.us or Last.fm, offer their users the possibility of tagging online content. Tagging can be defined as the enrichment of digital contents with semantically meaningful information in the form of freely chosen text labels, or tags. The freedom implied in this activity comes from the fact that tagging does not rely on a controlled vocabulary or a predefined taxonomic structure, but is instead an essentially individual act of classification. Tagging is fundamentally about sense-making, and can be viewed as user-defined filtering. A reason that may explain why tagging has become such a popular way of on-line classification is its simplicity: a tagger must only select or upload content to a centralized database, and assign words (tags) to this material. Even though tagging can be considered mainly as an individual activity, the aggregation of tags produced by an online community evolves into a common vocabulary known as folksonomy. Cattuto et al. have noted that the emergence of a folksonomy exhibits aspects also observed in human languages, such as the crystallization of naming conventions, competitions between terms or the appearance of widely spread neologisms. Steels sees tagging as an example of distributed cognition, based on the argument that language should be viewed "as a complex adaptive system in which a distributed group of agents collectively invent and align shared symbol systems." Steels also points out that tags, in a web context, act more like future aids for navigation in large information sources, rather than being referential markers for describing and discriminating objects. Tagging, in general, can be described as a highly subjective naming activity. Golder and Huberman propose a general classification of tags by their function, organized by Zollers in Table 1. In Flickr, tagging is not mandatory, and unlike other resource sharing sites, deals exclusively with user generated context, which can only be tagged by its owner. Following the tag support typology proposed by Marlow et al., the tagging mode supported by Flickr is "viewable", implying that users can view each other's tags and thus share ways of naming. This mode can lead to the convergence of local folk-sonomies, or alignment of vocabularies. There is an expectation that such localized convergences can result in global semantic effects if large numbers of users are involved. Ontologies, thus, can become an emergent feature of the community, as opposed to a prefixed contract or "dictionary." Flickr shows this emergent dictionary in a format that has become quite popular along with tagging: the "tag cloud," a list of tags highlighted in a way that is proportional to different criteria, such as usage frequency. While this perspective appears quite promising, it presents some major and yet unsolved problems, such as synonymy, indistinct use of plurals or parts of speech or even conflicting morphological constructions and the use of upper or lower case letters or special characters to denote words. Because of these current limitations, there is a great probability that many desired items will never be retrieved by a query simply because they were tagged in ways which are different than expected. Moreover, the unstructured nature of tags makes it very hard to arrange them into categories, which could greatly enhance navigation through the tagged information.